John Francis, Ph.D., is the founder and director of PlanetWalk, a nonprofit environmental education organization. He travels around the world speaking on pilgrimage and change, and on Planetlines, an environmental studies curriculum based on the walking pilgrimage.
The Planetwalker Companion
Discussion, Study, & Activity Guide
The Planetwalker Companion is a discussion, study, and activity guide intended for use by the general reader, book clubs, students, educators, and anyone interested in entering into deep reflection about the world as it is, how s/he fits into it, and in exploring how s/h/we can change the world to raise environmental consciousness and promote environmental stewardship. We hope that this guide will contribute to a global sense of community and help you in your individual and collective inner and outer pilgrimages through life. We invite you to email us at the Planetwalk Web site to share your stories of pilgrimage and to create a living document that both chronicles and shapes the ways in which we live our lives: www.planetwalk.org.
1. Read Thomas Merton's quote at the start of the Introduction. Why is it better to have both the inner and outer pilgrimage?
2. John describes his pilgrimage as having a 'geography'. What are the 'geographical' elements of the inner pilgrimage?
3. What does John mean when he says that “the ultimate justification in acting is primarily delivered out of the experience of acting” (p. 9)? What is John trying to justify?
Action Step (p. 24): On your first long walk, comfortable athletic shoes will do. Carry a light pack. As you add to the miles you walk in a day, and the weight you carry, invest in hiking shoes that cushion and support your feet. Dress in layers and bring water, an energy snack, a small flashlight, and a few Band-Aids TM to help prevent and treat the inevitable blister. Enjoy the journey.
Chapter 1. Oil and Water: When Worlds Collide
1. Drawing from your own experience, empathize with John in his response to the 1971 Standard Oil Spill in San Francisco Bay. Can you relate to the feeling that something (drastically life changing) must be done (by you) in response to a tragedy or series of events?
2. John says that the efforts of rescue workers trying to save oil-soaked birds were 'seemingly fruitless' (p. 13), but they seemed to inspire him nonetheless. How did John's experience of seeing these volunteers influence his eventual thinking and decision to stop driving and riding in cars?
3. What possible effects might John's 'disconnected year' (p. 17) in the sanitarium have had on his sense of connection to or detachment from the world and how might it have prompted him to contemplate his place in the scheme of things?
4. On page 17, John relates that once he was able to read and write, school no longer held much interest for him, and that 'what seemed more important was how the world worked and how (he) fit into it'. How has your own academic education helped you understand how the world works and how you fit into it?
5. John recalls his childhood growing up in urban Philadelphia with his immediate and extended family and visiting his Aunt Sadie and Uncle Luke in Harmony Village, Virginia. How might these early experiences of John's have influenced his views of the world?
6. How did Jerry Tanner's death tip the scales of action for John (and Jean) to walk? Re-read what John writes about their early walking experiences. What is it about these experiences that might have contributed to John's eventual decision to give up cars and other fossil fuel-powered vehicles?
Chapter 2. Living on the Road: Up in Smoke
1. What are the contrasting experiences of limitation and opportunity that John encounters as he makes his commitment to 'life on foot'? How does he deal with them?
2. What are the pivotal moments and realizations in John's early journey as he moves from outer to inner exploration and back again?
3. How do the several meetings with people who offer John a ride challenge him to continue his quest? In what new ways do they help him to understand his pilgrimage?
4. In referring to Malcolm X's autobiography (p. 29), John implies that the greatest difficulty he faced in his pilgrimage was to accept that which was 'already within and around him.' What was already within and around John that he was challenged to accept? What about you?
5. How did John's upbringing provide the foundation for his conviction to walk and how did his friend's letter (p. 35) move him to a new understanding of his own pilgrimage?
6. What role did Gordon and Ruth play in helping John to make more sense, or resolve the difficulties, of his pilgrimage? What effect did Gordon's being a physicist have on John?
Action Step (p. 36): As you look around, assess where you are, reflect on where you have been, and dream of where you are going. Every moment of the present contains the seeds of opportunity for change. Your life is an adventure. Live it fully.
Chapter 3. Bamboo and Silence: Learning to Listen
1. It didn't take long for painting to change John's life. What impacts did the discipline of painting have on John, especially after he discovers and begins to study bamboo, and to paint it in real life and from memory? How and in what ways did this change him?
2. In solitude on the beach, John paints a circle with a dot in it. What do you think this image signifies (this image starts each chapter of the book)? How do you think his day at the beach led to his extending his silence?
3. John spends a lot of time walking alone in relatively isolated places and sleeping outdoors. He paints and remains silent. He starts keeping a journal. What are the first lessons or realizations coming from this disciplined pilgrimage? In what ways has his silence affected the way he interacts with others, and how others interact with him?
4. Why did John decide to extend his silence until his next birthday? How was this an extension of his birthday present to his friends and how was it a gift to himself?
5. John communicates to his father that the reason for his silence is to stop him from telling lies, a realization that both came from silent exploration and led to its continuance. What had John been lying about, and to whom?
Chapter 4. Stealing Spirits: Meeting Mr. Death
1. John taught himself Indian Sign Language from a book by Iron Eyes Cody, a Cherokee chief who touched a generation of Americans, including John, with the public service announcement about pollution that first aired on Earth Day (April 22) 1971. Compare John and Iron Eyes Cody.
2. In what ways did John's friends assist him in his quest to get the photograph that was taken of him?
3. What does this statement mean: 'I decided to use my life for change, and to learn what that means' (p. 58)?
4. What do you think John would have said to the men who pointed a gun at him if he were speaking? How did he respond, both in the immediacy of the moment and later, after the men had gone?
5. What does John mean when he describes his smile upon greeting his friends on the road as being 'silly'?
Chapter 5. The Bridge: Pedestrian's Point of View
1. What was John's walking experience like after nearly two years of silence? What imagery does he use to describe his environment along the road?
2. How does John's music help him in his pilgrimage? How did it change his environment (including people, of course) and him? What other impacts did music in general have on John's journey?
3. In what ways do you think the bridge might be a metaphor for a critical connecting point in John's pilgrimage?
4. In what ways is John's relationship with his family changing? What are their various reactions to John's story? What do you think John means when he says that he decides it doesn't matter if they think he is crazy, and that giving them a new perspective on him is good enough (p. 73)?
5. Do you agree with La Java, John's mother, when she whispers to him that if he were serious about not driving he would not ride in elevators too? What impact did these words have on John? Why do you think she whispered this to him in confidence rather than say it aloud in front of the rest of the family?
Action Step (p. 69): Painting or drawing a scene or a landscape helps us more fully experience where we are. You can begin with a small sketchpad or blank bound book and watercolors. Don't be discouraged by your first attempts. Tomorrow is another day. Turn the page, walk, and remember to have fun. You will be amazed at where you find yourself.
Chapter 6. All that Glitters: Discovering the Wilderness
1. What impact did reading this chapter have on your own relationship to the 'environment'?
2. What roles do people play in John's wilderness education experience?
3. What does John's statement about 'somehow' managing 'not to mind the clutter of abandoned mining equipment' (p. 78) indicate about his own concept of wilderness, or wilderness state of mind, with regard to the place of people and the importance of history as part of wilderness?
4. What does John mean when he says that he is 'learning to see', 'can only understand the laughter' and is 'still learning how to listen' (p. 79)? What is the 'silent music' to which the nameless little bird bobs (p. 80)?
5. John wrote a poem at Slide Creek (p. 78). What does this poem mean, in your opinion?
6. What might be the reasons that John and Perry found something deeply familiar in one another when they first met?
7. The sextant given to John from Perry was a very touching and powerful gift. In what ways might the sextant, and the whole story about Perry and Ruth's shipwreck and journey through life, be a guiding metaphor for John in his own journey?
Action Step (p. 83): Listen actively to learn. Be prepared to hear something new without judgment, and listen to what you have heard before from the place where you are now. Learning may come from a new understanding of what you already seem to know.
Chapter 7. School of Reflection: Gathering the Tools
1. In what ways does John's relationship with death move to another level as a result of the Prior Learning Experience class at Southern Oregon State College? What realization did he have about what happens when you face death squarely? How do you think this impacted his decision to walk and sail across the planet?
2. What experiences and encounters in John's life, as related in the pages of Planetwalker, moved him to finish his college education?
3. What difficulties did John encounter in his classes as a result of his silence? In what ways might he have gotten more out of the classes by not talking than if he had talked?
4. When John's family comes to attend his college graduation ceremony, his father expresses his concern over and frustration with John's silent walking lifestyle despite acknowledging the magnitude of John's accomplishment and being excited about his front-page newspaper coverage. What is John's response to the interactions with his father during this visit?
5. When John hears of his father's illness and that he was calling for him, John confronts the limits of his self-imposed ban on fossil fuel vehicles and allows himself to hum over the phone as a way to communicate with his mother. What impact do you think John's decision to fly home had on his father, and what impact do you think his father's words of reassurance had on John?
6. What do you think John means when he says, when reflecting on his lifetime goals, that he had 'no idea of their true significance' (p. 100) and only 'looked forward to learning what they mean by walking' (p. 101)?
7. How has John now prepared himself for the next step in his pilgrimage?
Action Step (p. 93): Silence is always with us. But we do not choose silence, silence chooses us. If you are called to be silent on your journey, recognize the invitation as a great gift. It is a gift to be shared with others. Your relationship to silence is one thing that will define the uniqueness of your journey.
Chapter 8. Walking Words: The Road North
1. What events indicate that things are starting to come together and move to another level in John's journey?
2. What imagery does John use to describe his leaving family and friends in San Francisco to start his journey north (p. 103)? What does it mean?
3. In what ways are we 'all part of each other's' journeys (p.103)? What events reminded John of this important realization?
4. John recounts his 37th birthday, the 10th anniversary of his not speaking. Why did he decide to call his parents to tell them he was starting a walk across country, other than the obvious reason of telling them he loved them and that he was fine?
5. What impact did John's brief stay at the monastery have on his own understanding of his silence and his journey?
Chapter 9. The Road North: Along the Coast
1. The folks in the darkened restaurant in Jacksonville still had questions about John after he left for his friend Dave's house, but 'there were no questions' as he walked 'the last few weary miles' alone in the clearing night sky (p. 114-115). What questions remained, and what was it that required no questions?
2. What did the natural world reveal to John as he walked the Road North? What did he hear or what was he listening for, do you think, as he listened to the silence in the Peterson cabin that night (p. 118)?
3. In what ways, and how, is John, through his walking and silence and other actions and activities, fulfilling the mission of Planetwalk (raising environmental consciousness, promoting earth stewardship and peace)? Is he practicing a type of 'formative causation' (p. 121)?
4. What does John mean when he says that his hat was overflowing after his visit to the New Pacific School (p. 124)?
Action Step (p. 116): On the road, over time, the natural world will reveal itself to you. Observe the moonrise and sunset long enough and you will be able to predict a lunar eclipse. Watch the clouds gather and listen to the songs of birds and will foretell the weather.
Chapter 10. La Java: Tea Leaves and Sympathy
1. John settles into Port Townsend, Washington for the winter to build a dory. How is he integrated into the community and how is the community integrated into his pilgrimage and the Planetwalk community?
2. What are the elements of the story that could become a curriculum for peace, environmental consciousness, and earth stewardship?
3. How does John's winter in Port Townsend bring readers closer to connecting his childhood in Philadelphia to where he is now? What has the glue of his imagination (p. 137) transformed itself into?
4. Building a boat was a childhood dream of John's. In what ways might one see building a boat by hand (and with sensitivity to the environment) and rowing it to its destination as a metaphor for his pilgrimage? Or for pilgrimage in general?
5. John's mother, LaJava, and Aunt Jean visit, and John sees his mother for the first time in more than eight years. How has their relationship changed? Although seeing him building a boat is familiar, what changes has LaJava seen in her son?
Chapter 11. The Journey East: Washington to Montana
1. What do John's new experiences and encounters teach him about the world?
2. In relationship to the land, what environmental issues, attitudes, and behavior does John experience on his journey? Do you think walking provides a unique perspective? Do you think the issues encountered are local, regional, or global in scale? How does John's pilgrimage connect them?
3. Contrast the pristine nature of the Lightening Creek Wilderness Area with the potential of using the waterways for large-scale hydroelectric power. What environmental issues and impact are results? What are the tradeoffs, and is it worth it?
4. What does John mean when he says that 'the wilderness is still with us when we reach the little town of Twisp…' (p. 154)? For how long can one carry wilderness within oneself after having visited it? How does one carry it within?
5. Compare John's pilgrimage to a political campaign. In what ways does John's silent walking influence the nature of the relationships with people and the land, and his understanding of local attitudes and beliefs, and how do you think his lifestyle influences the ways people interact with him?
Action Step (p. 148): Music is an amazing communicator. Find an instrument that you can carry easily. In the spirit of the wandering minstrel, you can tell the story of your journey with the help of your instrument. Music can soothe a tired soul and heal an injured spirit. A great companion on your walk, music can be a vehicle for profound change.
Chapter 12. Hello, Good-Bye: Leaving Montana
1. To what extent does reading about John's experiences move you to want the same kind of immersion in the world at a walking pace? Compare and contrast the sense of the world around you and your pace in it gained by your lifestyle with that gained by John's lifestyle.
2. Take the time to reflect on what it must have been like for John to walk and to remain silent for so long. How often do you think he renewed his commitment to this lifestyle? What was he gaining from this lifestyle that made it worthwhile for him to continue it?
3. John struggled with the inertia of walking when he first arrived in Missoula, but soon realized that the effort he put into his formal education would proportionately expand the 'breadth and depth of Planetwalk' (p. 162). What does this mean?
4. In what specific ways does Planetwalk expand during John's time in Missoula?
5. Contrast John's interactions with his father and his silent communication with Old John Moore (p.167).
6. What are the 'doubts and anxieties' (p. 168) that John is experiencing as he says goodbye to friends in Missoula? Do you think it has to do with more than just having had foot surgery?
7. Explore the metaphor of tearing tender roots that John uses to describe what it is like to leave a community where he has stayed for an extended period of time (p. 168). If settling down causes roots to grow, then what metaphor(s) would you use for walking?
8. John finds comfort in the words of Thomas Merton (p. 172). Is communication at the deepest level the ultimate purpose of John's pilgrimage? What does that mean? Is this purpose what ultimately makes him much more than just an anomaly and akin to everyone else?
Chapter 13. The Desert: Carrying Water
1. Contrast the pace, rhythm, and nature of John's walk through the desert and the daily activities of the INEL workers. How do these contrasts amidst the vast harshness of the landscape impact John's pilgrimage and your own sense of it?
2. Why does John suggest that nuclear scientists are operating on faith, as he is with the water placements along his path?
3. John states that that although he left the desert behind him, it is 'now always with me' (p. 180). In what ways is the desert now always with him? How might he draw from his experiences as he continues his pilgrimage?
4. What does 'the moment of obligation in experience' mean? What insights does John draw from the creative process to address the issue of whether or not one's motives must be pure in order to act (p. 182)?
5. What are the benefits of living a simple life for John, or for anyone?
Action Step (p. 183): Find ways to create community as you make your Planetwalk. Writing letters to new and old friends connects them. Mahatma Gandhi believed that by publishing his journals he created community, and at the same time provided community service by writing on difficult issues that demanded the community's attention. Consider stopping in a new town or neighborhood that you are passing through.
Chapter 14. Yellowstone and the Plains: Bears and Missiles
1. What does John mean by feeling 'the elemental truth of walking' (p. 193)? What is this truth? What are some of the experiences that led to this feeling as John walked through Teton and Yellowstone Parks? To what extent did fear play a role in leading to this feeling? Have you felt this way before about walking?
2. How did the geography of the western mountains and valleys influence John's developing sense of his place?
Action Step (p. 192): Be conscious of your feelings. Examine your fears as well as your joys. On the road, fear can be a sign that your inner journey requires attention. Do not let your fear possess you. Look at it honestly, gather your courage, and listen to the lesson that is hidden in the trembling of your heart. Let go and take the next step.
Chapter 15. Snow Storm: Winter in South Dakota
1. How important was walking through the missile silo fields, seeing them, and interacting with people who lived near them for John's pilgrimage?
2. John chooses the route with more solitude and asks if the plains are really desolate and empty. Is this a rhetorical question?
3. What was John's experience like on the reservation? How do you think it informed his pilgrimage?
4. What does John mean when he says that he forgot to be where he was (p. 210)?
Chapter 16. Powwow: Broken Arrow
1. What does John learn about his new community of Watertown, and how does he learn it? How does he change the community and how does it change him?
2. John experienced some internal conflict about finishing his walk around the world (p. 215). How does he resolve this conflict?
3. John communicated 'the possibilities within us' to the students at the Bishop O'Gorman High School in Sioux Falls (p. 220). In what ways has he awakened possibilities in those he has encountered (including readers) and in what ways has his environment, including people, awakened these possibilities within him?
Action Step (p. 218): The only person one has the ethical authority to change is oneself. When we change our self, we indeed change the world. As we continue our journey we can make a difference in our community and in the world, one step at a time.
Chapter 17. Five Lakes: Minnesota and Wisconsin
1. What are the environmental, economic, and peace issues that John learns as he traverses Minnesota? How are they connected, both here and elsewhere in John's journey?
2. What is happening to Planetwalk as a movement? Are there any signs that it is growing? How can it get to the next level?
3. What did John learn from the anonymous man who gave him a hundred-dollar bill (p. 226)?
4. Describe the power and role of the simple and ordinary things John writes about as he lives each day in the greater cause of his pilgrimage.
5. What do the fireflies tell John?
6. D you think that John's sudden fatigue when he reaches Madison suggests that he has reached another major destination in his journey?
Chapter 18. Thanksgiving: Seven Years and a Day
1. What is the community of Madison like? Compare and contrast it with the other communities that John has joined.
2. Give examples of the things John learned in his informal education about the land and peoples' relationship to it--both before and after his stay in Madison--that confirmed the belief of the IES: that environmental problems are complex, and that the solutions to environmental problems 'transcend the boundaries of any one discipline' (p. 235).
3. How does John respond to his father when, during his visit, he asked 'What are you going to do with a PhD? They're a dime a dozen' (p. 235)?
4. Compare the impacts on John of the Standard Oil and Exxon Valdez oil spills.
5. Why does John know that he cannot wait even one more day to leave Madison, despite the fact that he feels like he is 'being born, propelled out on the road with nothing' (p. 238)?
6. What is the 'familiar dance' of John's walking life (p. 242)?
7. What lesson did John learn from the talking bear named Bob?
Action Step (p. 245): When you walk, lessons may present themselves to you in a variety of situations and disciplines, as in formal education. This is particularly true of environmental studies, which is touched by all the hard and soft sciences. But lessons presented on the path less taken are often unexpected. They can even come from the mouths of bears.
Chapter 19. Speaking from Silence: Thank You for Being Here
1. What was the 'last fear' that John gave up before speaking again after seventeen years of his vow of silence?
2. In what ways does John communicate the clarity of thought and full presence in the moment as he speaks?
3. Why did John feel like not speaking when he was trying to explain why he wanted to walk instead of ride in the ambulance? When else did he have doubts about whether or not it was the right decision?
4. Compare John's first interactions with people on the road after he began speaking again with his previous encounters in silence. What is different?
Box 12 (p. 254): Humor is healing, so remember to laugh. While it can be offensive in certain circumstances, look for humor in your own situation and when you find it, have a good laugh at yourself. It will lighten your spirit and help you grow.
Chapter 20. OPA90: Regulating Tankers
1. In what ways, if any, did your understanding of John relationship with his father change when you learned more about Dwayne, John's brother?
2. Why do you think John savored the moment before he answered Bruce Novak's question about how long it would take him to get to Washington D. C. by bike (p. 267)?
3. How important is silence in the relationship between John and his father, even now that John is speaking?
4. What did John learn from Lt. Smith about what some of the others had been thinking? What was their biggest surprise?
5. What does John mean when he says 'I knew that someday this would happen, that I would have to look back and see from where I've come' (p. 276)? What was the revelation that came from reflecting on his 'impossible' journey?
Action Step (p. 273): As we walk upon the road we meet ourselves. And at the end, perhaps we'll find that there are no sides to take, no enemies of state, no arguments against each other. There's only death that waits. But on this tiny planet, and in this precious moment, we have the chance to live in peace together. If only we would take a walk.
Chapter 21. Epilogue: Cuba
1. Why did John start riding in motorized vehicles again, after 22 years of avoiding them? What impact did this decision have on his walking?
2. What does 'El Caminante' mean?
3. What is your 'Planetline'?
The Planetwalker Companion - Credits
The Planetwalker Companion was written by David Morimoto with Murray Suid (contributor) and Jim Willse (editor). Morimoto has a PhD in Biology from Boston University and directs the Natural Science and Mathematics Division at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At Lesley, he is developing an environmental research program with a focus on community building through nature. He met John Francis in 2003 during Planetwalk Cuba.